Why I’ve Never Been Good At Playing Hard To Get

Emily Rapp explores the contradictory pieces of dating advice that say “play hard to get” and “just be yourself.”

Popular dating advice for women between the ages of 25 and 40, the targeted demographic of women’s magazines where these articles appear, often suggests that we play hard to get, or, at the very least, engage in a period of subterfuge in those initial weeks and months of dating during which we are “unavailable.” Although this advice is packaged in various ways, the message to women seems clear: Present yourself as a prize, and you will stimulate that primal impulse in men that wants to chase, hunt, and win you over (but hopefully this will not end with your head mounted on a wall). Even my father once said to me (possibly the least hip dude in the world, and I mean that as a compliment, a man who has loved the same woman his entire life): “Play a little bit hard to get!” This directly conflicts with the other piece of standard dating advice, which is to “just be yourself.” What if you’re not hard to get? What if you actually crave connection, romantic or otherwise?

Having re-entered the dating world in the past year after the end of my second marriage, I found this contradictory advice bewildering and, at 38, literally impossible to follow. I actually never followed it in my 20s either, and I can’t include my teenage years because I never had a single date. When I began dating my current boyfriend, however, I was seized with the familiar anxiety that has traveled with me across decades of dating.

As a person with a disability, I’ve been explaining my life story to people in elevators and on airplanes and in supermarket lines for as long as I can remember; I’ve never had the option of remaining shy about my vulnerabilities, obvious or otherwise. Typical questions: “What happened to your leg/what happened to you/did you break your foot/how did that happen?” Various responses include: “Nothing; it’s artificial/life happened to me/no, I did not break my foot although it is made of titanium so it could possibly break someone’s face/it’s a birth defect.”

People with disabilities understand that their bodies are viewed as public property. It is not unlike being pregnant all the time, when people suddenly feel compelled to place their hands on your belly without permission, and sometimes wordlessly. In this culture we are so weirded out by any bodily difference (and let’s also note that pregnancy is considered, in many workplaces, as a “disability”) that we start acting like curious children, which is, in theory, not necessarily a negative impulse. Still, as the recipient of this public peppering of intensely personal questions, one gets exhausted.

This was one anxiety. The second was that I’ve often been accused of being “too much.” I have too much to say and I like to say it quickly. Great, I thought. I’m an open book, fast-talking spaz with a limp. I polled a few of my friends: Should I take a Xanax before I go out for the first time with a man I’m interested in so I talk less? Avoid caffeine that day? No, they all agreed. You’re energetic and weird. We love that, so anyone who loves you will do the same. As my best friend once said to me, “Your ability to be open is one of the very best things about you.” She told me this after one of my many breakups when I had retreated to her house to recover and weep and snot up a million tissues. I never forgot it; part of me wanted to tattoo her words on my arm. Instead, I simply ask her to repeat them to me ad nauseum.

So on this first date I decided to be as uncool as possible, which meant I laughed loudly, and talked openly and a lot about my very complicated life (but then again, who has a simple life at any age?). I had a great time, and so did he. And we’re still having a great time. When I asked him about this whole “hard to get” theory, he had this to say: “When men become men, they don’t want to be led on the dance anymore.” What a relief.

This made me wonder about dating advice for men, which is normally not as codified in books and articles as it is for women. The one time I’ve seen anything resembling “advice” was in this headline: “Do you deserve a hotter girlfriend?” which appeared on the cover of a men’s magazine on a guy friend’s coffee table. The glossy-skinned woman on the cover appeared to be wearing a dress made of black duct tape.

The point is, I don’t think men think like that, or want to. This doesn’t mean they’re all going to grow their hair long, start saying “namaste” as a greeting, bring up “the universe” in casual conversations, or go on drum retreats for men. I think it’s much more basic than that: I think men, like women, want to have clear messages about a potential mate’s interest, about his or her life and feelings and history and desires. In other words, men are not cavemen. Women joke about this a lot: Men are beasts, dogs, simple creatures, but we’re still devouring advice that would have us treat or “manage” them in ways we claim to disdain or that are demeaning to us as women. It’s not just men who are playing these games.

We are all simple creatures, in the end: We want attention, we want love and respect; we crave companionship and conversation and touch. We’re human beings. Although advertisements and magazine article advice might try to convince us otherwise, nobody wants to be dating in the dark, playing some strange and potentially hurtful game of duck and cover. I think what we really want is to allow our issues and idiosyncrasies and weird little ways to live in the light, and we want another person to join us there.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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